The change would allow tribal communities to identify as Sarna instead of Hindus, Christians or others
Indian tribes at a protest meeting demanding a separate religious code ahead of the upcoming national census in New Delhi on April 25. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)
Tribal peoples from nine Indian states have reiterated their decade-old demand to be identified as Sarna, a religious category separate from options like Hindu, Christian or others, in the national census.
About 500 protesters, including tribal Christians in their traditional attire, gathered at the Jantar Mantar site in the national capital Delhi on April 25 to push for the inclusion of the Sarna code in the upcoming census.
The protesters, who came from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam and Mizoram, presented a memorandum to Home Minister Amit Shah, at the Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda and the census commissioner.
The census was supposed to take place in 2021, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, it could now be done by the end of 2022. If the Sarna code is approved by the federal government before the start of the census exercise , members of tribal communities will be able to identify themselves in a separate column classifying them as a separate religion.
“This will help preserve our age-old languages, traditions, customs and identity,” said Prem Shahi Munda, national secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Dharma Parishad, a national council of Indian tribal people belonging to various religions.
Leaders of the tribal movement claim that between 1872 and 1941 there was a column called “Adivasi [tribal] religion” and tribal peoples were recorded as the third largest population in the country. But in the 1951 census it was removed and the tribal peoples were counted as Hindus, Christians or others.
“Tribal people are nature worshipers who treat forests, mountains, rivers, etc., as their deities. They do not belong to any religious group”
The tribal dominated state government of Jharkhand passed a resolution on November 11, 2020, urging the federal government to introduce a separate column for followers of the Sarna religion in the upcoming census.
Mukti Prakash Tirkey, chairman of the Akhil Bhartiya Vikas Parishad, said the states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have been demanding the Sarna code since their establishment as tribal states in 2000.
Tirkey, a Catholic tribal leader, said the tribal civilization, culture and languages were distinct from other Indian groups. Representatives of tribal communities from 19 states had staged a huge protest in Jantar Mantar in 2019 to demand the right to choose tribal or aboriginal religion as an option in the census or any other government application form.
“Tribal people are nature worshipers who treat forests, mountains, rivers, etc., as their deities. They don’t belong to any religious group,” Tirkey said.
But some activists have raised concerns about the nomenclature.
Some experts doubt that members of tribal communities from different regions identifying with different names can be grouped under a single code or category.
Sanjay Basu Mallik from Jangal Bachao Andolan (movement to save forests) was quoted by Down to earth magazine as saying that the term Sarna was not common to all followers of a naturalistic religion based on the worship of forests, rivers and mountains.
He was also against the idea of equating the Sarna with tribal peoples only and felt that it should be open to all those who revere nature.
Some experts doubt that members of tribal communities from different regions identifying with different names can be grouped under a single code or category. Others think it is hardly a problem at the local level.
Hindutva groups often pit indigenous peoples against Christians by saying that they are part of their Sanatan Dharm to fold. Tribal peoples demanding a separate category could put Hindutva forces in a difficult situation
Ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections, the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata party promised that if elected to power, it would implement tribal peoples’ longstanding demand for a separate Sarna Code.